Ace, Johnny (1929-1954)
Ace, Johnny (1929-1954)
On Christmas day, 1954, backstage at the Civic Auditorium in Houston, Texas, blues balladeer, songwriter, and pianist Johnny Ace flirted with death and lost, shooting himself in the head while playing Russian roulette. Ace was at the peak of his brief musical career. In two years, he had scored six hits, two of them reaching number one on the Billboard R&B chart, and Cash Box magazine had named him the "Top Rhythm and Blues Singer of 1953." Shocked by his violent death, Ace's fans and his colleagues in the music industry searched for an explanation. The musician had everything to live for, yet made his demise his legacy. While no one will ever know why he committed suicide, his plaintive melodies and vocal delivery conjure associations filled with pathos.
Ace's musical style, like that of many other Rhythm and Blues artists, was eclectic, drawing from both church and secular contexts and embracing blues, jazz, gospel, hymns, and popular songs. He was, however, first and foremost a blues balladeer whose effectively sorrowful baritone earned the description of "the guy with a tear in his voice." His piano technique was limited, but his strength lay in his abilities as a songwriter and vocalist, and his compositions were memorable. He generally used a repeated pattern of simple motifs that made retention easy for his listening audience, many of whom were teenagers. Ace's hits were sad, beautiful, touching songs that held his listeners and caused them to ponder life. While he could sing the straight 12-bar blues, this was not his forte. He was a convincing blues balladeer, and it was this genre that clearly established his popularity and his reputation. Ace's blues ballads borrowed the 32-bar popular song form, and were sung in an imploring but softly colloquial style in the tradition of California-based blues singer and pianist Charles Brown.
John Marshall Alexander was born on June 9, 1929 in Memphis, Tennessee. The son of the Rev. and Mrs. John Alexander Sr., Johnny Ace sang in his father's church as a child. He entered the navy in World War II, and after returning to Memphis began to study the piano and guitar. By 1949, he had joined the Beale Streeters, a group led by blues vocalist and guitarist B. B. King and which, at various times, included Bobby Bland, Roscoe Gordon, and Earl Forest. The Beale Streeters gained considerable experience touring Tennessee and neighboring states, and when King left the group, he charged young Ace as leader. John Mattis, a DJ at radio station WDIA in Memphis who is credited with discovering Ace, arranged a recording session at which Ace sang, substituting for Bobby "Blue" Bland, who allegedly couldn't remember the lyrics to the planned song. Ace and Mattis hurriedly wrote a composition called "My Song," and recorded it. While it was a technically poor recording with an out-of-tune piano, "My Song" was an artistic and commercial success, quickly becoming a number one hit and remaining on the R&B chart for 20 weeks. The song employed the popular 32-bar form that remained the formula for a number of Ace's later compositions.
Ace signed with Duke Records, which was one of the first black-owned independent record companies to expose and promote gospel and rhythm and blues to a wider black audience. They released Ace's second record, "Cross My Heart," which featured him playing the organ in a gospel style, with Johnny Otis's vibra-harp lending a sweet, blues-inspired counter melody to Ace's voice. Again, this was a recording of poor technical quality, but it was well received, and climbed to number three on the R&B chart. The musician toured as featured vocalist with his band throughout the United States, doing one nighters and performing with Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, Charles Brown, and Bobby Bland, among others. Ace made several other hit records, such as the chart-topping "The Clock"—on which he accompanied himself on piano with a wistful melodic motif in response to his slow-tempo vocal—and the commercially successful "Saving My Love," "Please Forgive Me," and "Never Let Me Go." This last, given a memorable arrangement and superb accompaniment from Otis's vibes, was the most jazz-influenced and musically significant of Ace's songs, recalling the work of Billy Eckstine.
Two further recordings, "Pledging My Love" and "Anymore" (the latter featured in the 1998 film Eve's Bayou), were Ace's posthumous hits. Ironically, "Pledging My Love" became his biggest crossover success, reaching number 17 on the pop chart. The Late, Great Johnny Ace, who influenced California blues man Johnny Fuller and the Louisiana "swamp rock" sound, made largely poignant music which came to reflect his fate—that of a sad and lonely man, whose gentle songs were unable to quell his inner tension or prevent his tragic end.
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Salem, James M. The Late, Great Johnny Ace and the Transition from R & B to Rock 'n' Roll. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1999.